by Fred Schroeder

Future Reflections

Winter, 1993

Editor's Note: On Friday afternoon, July 3, Fred Schroeder, Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, delivered an address to the 1992 NFB convention. Because of his many years of teaching and administrative experience in the education of blind children, Mr. Schroeder is an expert in this field, so his remarks on the modern inclusion movement--"Mainstreaming Revisited"--and its impact on the education of blind children, should be taken seriously by everyone with an interest in the subject.

In 1940 when the National Federation of the Blind was founded, a mechanism was created by which blind people could at last guide their own destinies. The achievement of the past fifty years has not been the product of good fortune or happenstance, but rather the just and inevitable outcome of concerted action.

As our organization has grown, we have increasingly come to recognize that it is our shared philosophy about blindness that enables us to keep our energies focused and our goals clearly in view. During Dr. Jernigan's tenure as President of our organization, he articulated our philosophy in clearly defined principles. He taught us that, given proper training and opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of real equality with their sighted peers. The truth of this statement is recognized by all of us and forms a cornerstone upon which policy and political action are built.

Our shared philosophy makes us strong, coordinating individual effort in collective action. We believe that, given training and opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of equality. It naturally follows that, for blind children to be successfully integrated into society, they too need training and opportunity. Early residential schools for the blind started with an assumption that, if blind children mastered fundamental literacy skills through Braille, they were capable of becoming well-educated. Many schools for the blind practiced mainstreaming long before the term became fashionable. I remember Lawrence "Muzzy" Marcelino, a long-time leader in our organization, telling me that in the 1920's and 1930's high school students at the California School for the Blind would attend public school classes armed with a slate and stylus and a portable typewriter. These students were expected to compete and had the training to make that expectation a reality.

After World War II, with the advent of the RLF generation, schools for the blind found themselves overcrowded, and hence the practice of integrating blind children into regular school programs became more and more widespread. Yet a curious thing began to happen. Blind students educated away from the residential school experienced difficulty receiving training, particularly in Braille reading and writing, and therefore found themselves educated under a substandard, watered-down curriculum. Gone were the expectations that came with real literacy. Instead, blind children encountered a conception of blindness which expected, and even rewarded, inferior performance.

 In the late 1970's, with the implementation of Public Law 94-142, the integration of disabled children was popularized under the concept of mainstreaming. This movement was premised on the belief that blind and other disabled children should be educated in the least restrictive environment, alongside non-disabled children in regular classes. The missing element from the mainstreaming movement was an examination of expectations for blind children. When I attended graduate school, we were told that blind children educated in isolation had numerous social problems, making them ill-equipped to function in a sighted world. The clear focus of mainstreaming was social integration, with substandard academic performance tacitly accepted.

Today there is a resurgence in the mainstreaming movement with an even more radical view of integration. Modern-day mainstreaming, which goes by the name of inclusion or the regular education initiative, asserts that all disabled children should be educated in regular classes, eliminating pull-out programs altogether. Proponents of inclusion argue that differences in people are found throughout society and therefore artificial distinctions which label and categorize are unnecessary and undesirable in our educational system. They believe that regular classroom teachers should be able to educate all children, regardless of their needs for specialized training. However, as with the mainstreaming movement, the modern-day inclusion movement fails to address academic achievement as an essential element of public education.

On its face the concept of inclusion appears both common sense and morally correct. The practice of labeling children--and with it the implied stigma of dysfunctionality--seems contrary to the spirit of American democracy. I am concerned, however, about the impact of inclusion on the education of blind children.

For the blind child successful mainstreaming is dependent on the child's ability to compete with his or her sighted peers. Braille reading and writing constitute an alternative to print reading and writing. Similarly, use of the abacus allows the blind child to perform mathematical computations quickly and efficiently. The typewriter and, more recently, the computer, while not special devices for the blind, are vital tools by which the blind child can communicate with the sighted. For the blind child to function competitively, it is also necessary that he or she be able to get around with the same degree of independence as his or her sighted peers. Thus competence in the use of the white cane for independent travel is essential. These techniques, representing a separate and distinct set of skills, are not inferior, but simply alternative.

Under the concept of inclusion, integrating blind children from kindergarten on may deny them the opportunity fully to master the skills needed to keep up with their classmates. Blind children are subject to the same social conditioning about blindness as the public at large. Myths and misconceptions about blindness are rampant. The blind child exposed to prevailing attitudes about blindness will inevitably internalize at least some of these attitudes and question his or her own competence. The child may come to feel that because of blindness he or she is automatically inferior to his or her classmates and unable to perform comparable work.

Conversely the well-trained blind child possessing the alternative techniques needed for full participation will find that he or she can function on an equal footing with his or her sighted peers. The application of alternative techniques serves to strengthen the blind child's confidence in his or her ability to function competitively. In this way the blind child can begin to tear down his or her own misconceptions about blindness and become convinced that he or she will be able to be a fully participating, contributing member of society.

Under today's special education system, the alternatives for blind children are very few. Parents are faced with the real problem of getting the existing service-delivery systems to respond to their children's needs for training in Braille, cane travel, and the other skills of blindness. It is not likely that this situation will be improved by a push for a widespread desegregation of blind children. Rather than achieving meaningful integration, blind children would be faced with having to compete without having the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to be successful. The end result would be diminished educational opportunities for blind children while making them erroneously believe that they are unable to compete because of blindness.

 A distinction should be made between segregation for segregation's sake and specialized services for the purpose of providing the training necessary for meaningful integration. A young woman I know attended our state's residential school for the blind for her elementary school training. The academic and social skills she acquired enabled her to return to a public school setting for the balance of her education. Without this early mastery of fundamental literacy skills through Braille reading and writing, along with the other skills she acquired, it is doubtful that she would have had either the confidence or the ability to achieve true integration. Rather than isolating her from society, her experience at the school for the blind gave her the ability to function successfully in society. Today this woman works as a personnel specialist for the Los Alamos National Labs and is married and raising two young children. She is living a normal life, in large part because of the opportunities she received through specialized training.

The process of integration should not be confused with desegregation. Placing blind children with sighted children may desegregate them, yet integration is an active process which blind children can only initiate if they have the confidence and tools to make it happen. Inclusion is, of course, the most desirable outcome, but, as with integration, it cannot be accomplished merely through a process of desegregation. To my way of thinking, inclusion for blind children must, by necessity, start with a substantial period of specialized training. This training may take place in a regular class, a resource room or itinerant program, or a residential school for the blind.

The question, therefore, is not whether the regular class is preferable to the resource room or school for the blind, but rather which setting offers the best prospect for blind children to acquire training and confidence. If we believe that blind children can compete on terms of real equality, then our expectations for them will be driven by this belief. Children must be challenged to achieve and challenged to compete, and by so doing, they will experience inclusion in the true meaning of the word. Blind children and their parents need the encouragement of adult role models who can help them expand their conception of blindness and their belief in the ability of blind people. Blind children and their parents need the National Federation of the Blind and the philosophy that comes with it. We as blind people comprise a minority, and as such we are subject to public misunderstanding. Yet we have learned that through the National Federation of the Blind we have a vehicle for collective action directed by a shared philosophy about blindness which gives us determination, strength, and the prospect of real equality.